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How far will we go for Gustav?

2/18/2003 11:38 AM

There is a mysterious direction in the score of Mahler's Third Symphony. Between the two notes of the oboe (and English Horn) "bird calls" in the 4th movement, there is the word "hinaufziehen", meaning drawing up or pulling up. But the customary line between the notes that always indicates a slide or portamento in Mahler's music is missing. It is now generally agreed amongst scholars that Mahler intended some kind of glissando between the notes. However, the oboe is really not capable of making such a slide, so it remains very controversial. Most conductors and oboists ignore it. Some have tried it with varying degrees of success.

I would like to tell you what happened in London for our recent concerts, in the run-up to the recording at the end of February 2003.

First let me report that Peggy Pearson, the extraordinary first oboe of the Boston Philharmonic, had managed to create (and I use the word advisedly) the most beautiful, eerie, haunting, loon-like oboe slide I have ever heard for our November performances. They are captured on a recording, the fourth movement of which I will post on my web-site - for anyone interested to hear.

Not to be outdone, the Boston Philharmonic English horn player, Ron Kaye, realizing that it was simply impossible to make a glissando on a modern English Horn, dismantled an English Horn belonging to a student of his, and, by plugging two of the holes with plasticine, and by withdrawing a finger slowly from the keys, he managed to create an almost equally convincing slide. This can be clearly heard as the third of the four "hinaufziehen" bird calls.

In the weeks leading up to the Philharmonia concert in January, I communicated with their first oboist (Gordon Hunt), who protested that he neither liked the sound of the glissando, nor did he believe he could make the sound effective. He claimed that, to his ears, it always sounded like the wailing of a cat in heat and nothing could persuade him otherwise. He of course agreed to try because he is a total professional, but he seriously questioned the whole enterprise, wondering how I could be so sure that the word "hinaufziehen" actually implied a glissando, in the absence of the all-important line between the notes.

After the first couple of rehearsals in London I was beginning to contemplate the idea of abandoning the idea - his characterization of the wailing cat and his rendition on the oboe were spot on. I asked him to listen to Peggy's performance on a tape, which he did, but while he said he admired her enormously, he still didn't believe in it. However, at the dress rehearsal of the second concert a sound emerged from his oboe that was pretty close to my dream of what that sound should be - a very quiet, sensual and gradual upward glissando. I gave him a look of undying gratitude.
At the concert I cannot say that the rendition was as good, but a whole month will have elapsed by the time we go into the studio on March 1st, so I am hopeful that it will be to all our satisfaction "on the day"!

The story with the English Horn is no less intriguing. In my original letter to Gordon Hunt, I had asked him if could pass on to Jane Marshall, the Philharmonia Cor Anglais player, that I was hoping she could do what Ron Kaye had done and modify another CA in order to realize the slide. He assured me she didn't possess another instrument and would certainly not be responsive to such a request. My only alternative therefore, was to ask Ron if he could persuade his student to loan me the instrument, so that I could take it to England. He agreed and even came over to the house to give me an extended lesson on how the sound is made, including instructions about lipping the top note down to make it flatter, or was it lipping it up to make it sharper?

Now, all that remained was to write to the customs official at Logan Airport to get permission for me to carry a menacing-looking instrument through customs - much has changed here since the days when I took a timpani crate and a four-foot plumber's pipe through customs in order to create the appropriately terrifying thud of the hammer-blows in the Sixth! Permission granted, I took the instrument in my hand and flew to England.

The reaction to the CA when it was unveiled was quite extraordinary. Jane Marshall, usually a rather sober individual, collapsed in peals of laughter. Her helpless giggles causing a ripple of laughter throughout the wind section. Clearly to get her to use this contraption was going to be a hard sell. Well, I tried, but she drew the line. She simply was unwilling to risk her professional reputation by attempting a sound on a specially prepared Cor Anglais, that might have ended up as a squawk. Instead she produced a perfectly delightful and eloquent two-note figure without the trace of a slide and that was that. I wonder how many people in the audience noticed that the Bird of the Night made three slides and one perfectly negotiated leap between the two notes of its call?

There is however, one rather touching postlude to this story. At the end of the dress rehearsal, when I went to Jane to retrieve the Cor Anglais to take back to America, Jane asked if I would consider leaving it with her for the month so that she could work on the slide in the interim, in preparation for the recording. Now all that remained was to get permission from Ron's student for an extension to the loan!

I haven't corresponded with either Bird of the Night since the concerts, but I suspect that when I come into the recording session on Sunday night March 1st I will be presented with two convincingly glissandoing instruments. Such is the spell that Gustav Mahler weaves over all of us.

You can listen to Peggy's (and Ron's) rendition of the slides by going to the Boston Philharmonic recording page and down loading the 4th movement.

When I get a few moments I will tell you the rest of the story of what happened when we got back to London for the recording!

Listen to an excerpt from Mahler 3


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